Two Theologies – Part One: A Sermon on Human
Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of
Edmonton, October 17, 2004
New Words for Life
Unitarian Universalists need a new language of reverence to solve
a current problem. Presently, we affirm two conflicting doctrines
of human nature. One doctrine is a legacy of the man who gave
American Unitarianism a “party platform”, William Ellery Channing
(Wright, 3). Channing said our human essence is the mind, which he
believed was independent from the body. The other doctrine is a legacy
of Universalism’s singularly important nineteenth-century
leader, Hosea Ballou, who said our human essence is the mind
and the body,
which together define and determine our experiences. When our
two historic traditions consolidated in 1961 we ended up with
Unitarian Universalism, which affirms two incompatible doctrines
of human nature.; A new language of reverence enables us to resolve
Currently, the doctrinal problem prevents us from
talking coherently about who we are as a religious people. Unitarian
Universalism, as part of a wider,
liberal theological tradition, begins with a set of assumptions about
human nature rather than with doctrinal claims about God, scripture,
or church tradition. If our assumptions about human nature do not cohere,
then the theology that articulates them will not cohere either.
This is the state
in which we find ourselves today.
No one is more aware of the fallout from this problem than our
children. They grow up and leave our church because they find
little within it
sense or sustains them. And so our congregations survive as the church
of strangers, the place for dissidents who have left their original
traditions for doctrinal
reasons and for those who seek a religious tradition in which indefinition
is its defining attraction.
Our visitors are also aware of this problem. Five
out of seven people who visit our churches do not return. We can
than this. We
this. We – and our children – need a church that enlivens
and sustains us all. So, too, does our world.
There is an old witticism I have shared many times before. Thomas
Starr King, a prominent California Unitarian minister uttered it
around 1860. Being on the west coast, I guess he felt it proper to
make fun of the earnestness of his Boston colleagues.
King was asked one day to define the main theological difference
between Unitarians and Universalists, then friendly adversaries in
the realm of liberal religion. "The Universalists hold that
God is too good to damn them", said King, summing up the core
idea of universal salvation, and then with a twinkle he added, “and
the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned."
Now Thomas Starr King was partly taking a dig at the fact that most
New England Unitarians were of the upper echelon of society and thought
rather well of themselves.
But his quip does illustrate the point Thandeka made in our reading.
When our two historic traditions consolidated in 1961 we ended
up with one religion, Unitarian Universalism, which affirms two
doctrines of human nature. A new language of reverence enables
us to resolve this problem." 
There is a fundamental difference in the foundational theologies
that form our religious heritage. The fact is Unitarian Universalists
had to compromise on core values at the time of merger, a decades
long evolution that led finally to a single Association in 1961.
The process required the development of a careful climate of diplomacy
necessary for compromise. That climate continues to affect us to
this day. Thandeka feels now, that the compromises that enabled the
coming together are now starting to get in the way.
This is a two part sermon series. Today I will look at the two historic
views of human nature, because it’s good to know from where
we come. Next Sunday I will look at the way the compromises impact
our faith today. My key concern is one I began to discuss a few weeks
ago. It’s one we are taking up in the Language of Reverence
course that started on Thursday:
As UU’s we are used to compromising, to listening to other
points of view, often without asserting our own. Has this left us,
as a faith, unable to articulate what we believe? Is it time to compromise
on our willingness to compromise and start being little more definite
about who we are? Do we dare draw our circle of community a little
more clearly…in ink instead of pencil? Are we ready, having
drawn the circle, to risk having some leave it or choose to not enter?
Is it possible to become clearer about who we are and what we affirm
without becoming a creedal church?
I don’t know the best answers to these questions, but I do
believe they require some discussion. Next Sunday we will look at
them more closely, but for today, let’s look at the historical
William Ellery Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1780
and died in Boston in 1841. He was raised as a Congregationalist
and attended Harvard Divinity School, then as now and elite institution.
In his early years a debate raged inside of Congregationalism. Conservatives
were banging the drum for old time unquestioning religion. New young
liberals like Channing were advocating the use of reason, the welcoming
of newly emerging scientific evidence, and the celebration of the
mind. Religion ought not to be accepted blindly, they said, but weighed
with the powers of reason. Much of the debate would focus on the
literal truth of the Gospels. Did Jesus turn water into wine? Were
the miracles real? In the end, Channing and a good many others said
no, for such a belief did not make rational or scientific sense.
By 1820 Channing had gone so far as to deny the divine son-ship of
Jesus. There was only one God, he said.
Channing and a group of other prominent Boston liberal ministers
were thus labeled with the nasty term of ‘Unitarians’.
They broke away from the Congregationalists. By 1822, they had claimed
the name for their own. In Channing’s study they organized
the American Unitarian Association with the reknowned Channing as
their leader. Their movement grew quickly supported by the resources
of the well-to-do Boston intellectual set.
Although Channing denied the divinity of Jesus, it would be wrong
to say he was not a Christian. And while he would deny original sin – the
ancient doctrine that said we were born sinful, Channing certainly
held we were capable of sinning.
In the tradition of Paul he held that we were of a dual nature…mind
and body separate within us, each with its own urges and powers.
It was the task of the mind to control the body and keep us in line
with the natural religious impulse in humans, and impulse that drew
us closer to God.
“We are made for God," he wrote, “all our affections,
sensibilities, faculties, and energies are designed to be directed
towards God; the end of our existence is fellowship with God." 
But we are imperfect. He later adds, “All human systems are
necessarily defective. They partake of the limits of the human mind.
The purest religion which (humans have) ever adopted, or ever will
adopt, must fall very far below the glory of its object." 
These weaknesses in human nature allow for us to sin, even though
we are called to be better, "Conscience…intimates that
there is a Ruler above us… Conscience speaks not as a solitary,
independent guide, but as the delegate of a higher legislator." 
Channing fully expected some divine punishment to follow us after
death, “The miseries of disobedience to conscience and God
are not exhausted in this life. Sin deserves, calls for, and will
bring down future, greater misery. This Christianity teaches, this
Nature teaches." 
As Thandeka summed up Channing, “Channing we might say, espoused
a doctrine that in contemporary terms could be called a doctrine
of the split self; a mind at war with its body’s own self-acknowledged
Hosea Ballou was appalled by this bifurcated doctrine of human nature.
Ballou “affirmed the integrity of embodied humanity."
Hosea Ballou was not a founder of Universalism, but he was one of
the early American preachers who brought it to prominence and helped
grow a denomination considerably larger than Unitarianism in its
Channing was 16 when Ballou was born in 1796. Hosea was born in
rural Vermont. Unlike Harvard educated Channing, Ballou learned his
letters painstakingly at home and became an avid student. He never
went to college. He became a child preacher in the Universalist Church
and served as a circuit-riding minister for a time. At age 21 he
settled in a parish in Medford MA. And grew into a prominent and
much published church figure.
In those days, Universalism was a well-established faith in rural
New England. It served a mostly working class population. Where Unitarianism
pursued a quest of the mind and sought to subject religious beliefs
to the test of reason, Universalism was more a religion of the heart.
The Universalists countered the dark old time gloomy Congregational
and Baptist religions with a message of hope. “Give them not
Hell, but hope and courage;" said American Universalist founder
John Murray a few decades earlier, “preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God." 
God was only good and loving. God could not therefore condemn his
creation to eternal punishment partly because he loved us too much
and partly because in his infinite justice, he understood that he
had created the possibility of sin. We should not be held accountable
for the failings of His creation.
This hopeful message of a salvation also lent itself to Ballous’s
doctrine of human nature. We were not divided beings. Instead he
affirmed the integrity of an embodied humanity. Thandeka writes, “Ballou
defined human nature as the experience of the integration of the
mind and body as codeterminate faculties. The continuity of human
experience, Ballou insisted, entails the active engagement of both
the mind and the body. Human wholeness is a continuum of mental and
In a battle of essays lasting several years, Ballou and Channing
debated their points. In response to Channing’s view of the
continuation of divine punishment, Ballou wrote:
"A picture more appalling. More withering to virtuous hope,
and blasting to the aspirations of mercy and compassion, was never
of mercy, deliver us from a fiend that would blot out the sun,
the moon, and the stars, and destroy the beauty and all the loveliness
of creation, but preserve sin with maternal fondness! Had (Channing’s)
eye but caught a glimpse of this haggard form, his affectionate
heart, his benevolent soul would have frozen. “
Ballou would go on to challenge Channing’s mind/body split.
I say “challenge", but Channing would have probably said ‘attacked’ for
when Ballou moved to Boston soon after, it is recorded that Channing
refused to offer all the usual ministerial courtesies. “Channing
treated him as though he were a leper." Channing dismissed
Ballou and other like him as fools who “thought lightly of
The feud between Channing and Ballou was never resolved. In spite
of this, over the next century, the Unitarians and Universalists
grew ever closer together, both theologically and institutionally.
It became increasingly common for Unitarian ministers to serve Universalist
churches and vice versa.
By 1960 poor institutional planning had left the Universalist Church
almost bankrupt. Merger with the Unitarians seemed to be the only
solution. But the act of merger became a diplomatic dance of compromise.
The Channing-Ballou debate was not the most important of
the delicate issues, but it was the oldest.
It is often surprising to see how long foundational issues can affect
an organization, a community or a family. I have long held, for example,
that a key factor in the difference between Canadian and American
society is foundational. The U.S. was born in violent revolution
and the struggle for the rights of the individual. Canada was born
out of an Act of Parliament that made good sense for both Canada
and England at the time. Instead of a fight for individual rights,
Canada was formed with a goal of ‘peace order and good government’.
These stories, even if forgotten by most, still shape attitudes and
policies on both sides of the border.
Unitarian Universalism happened because it made sense to merge in
1960. But in that merger, the identities of both churches had to
be respected. The problem is that this delicate respect has left
little room, until now, for the emergence of a distinct entity called
Now may be the time. The ministers who identified themselves as
either Unitarian or Universalist have all retired. Children who grew
up in one church or the other are now well over 50 and have had their
religious identities shaped more by the new church than the old.
Old loyalties have weakened. I believe this is partly what UUA President
Bill Sinkford meant when he suggested that we were finally mature
enough as an organization to begin wrestling with the question of
Where we came from will always be important. But the question for
the 21st century must shift away from “Who were we?" to “Who
will we become?"
Next Sunday I will look at the challenges facing the contemporary
church as we take up this issue of Unitarian Universalist identity.
- Thandeka, (New Words for Life in “The Language of Reverence" (Meadville
Lombard, 2004) p. 71
- Channing, William Ellery “The Religious Principle in Human
Nature in “Channing’s Works" (Boston, 1896)
- Ibid. p. 932
- Ibid. p. 933
- Channing, William Ellery, The Evil of Sin" “Channing’s Works" (Boston,
1896) p. 349
Thandeka, Op.Cit. p. 74
- Quoted in “Singing the Living Tradition" (Boston,
- Thandeka, Op. Cit. Pp 74-75
- Quoted in Thandeka, Op. Cit. p. 73
- Miller, Russell
E. “The Larger Hope" vol 1.
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